Learning is a process that occurs in a student’s mind, and thus all learning is necessarily blended: a combination of instructor-guided activities and student self-directed curiosity, research, and practice. I believe that the biggest factors in student success are strong motivation and self-knowledge. My role as a teacher is to foster these attitudes in my students. I aim to make my classroom a place where genuine relationships are fostered, where high standards are matched by a high level of support.
To develop the motivation to succeed, students need a clear vision of how the subject relates to them personally, some autonomy to study problems they have a personal interest in, and the confidence to believe that they are capable of mastering the subject matter. Students are often bogged down by the sheer number of facts in biology courses because they fail to see how individual details fit into a context they care about. I try to foster students’ motivation by relating cellular and physiological processes to human health and current news articles. My students make concept map posters that identify the major processes in each body system and relate each small detail to those major processes, and they create comics about immune processes and relate them to more familiar situations.
While learning facts is important, I believe the major purpose of undergraduate biology courses is to train students in scientific thinking and methods. My students are very fond of lab activities, where I try to incorporate real inquiry as much as possible. When I have taught more advanced classes, I have found it possible to assign students to research background information and steps of a procedure on their own, bring their procedure in a lab notebook, engage in discussion about modifications we need to make based on time and material constraints, perform the procedure and analyze and interpret their results. Successful autonomous projects build students’ confidence and increase their motivation and desire for mastery.
I have found that Reading Apprenticeship is a useful framework for teaching metacognitive thinking. As part of this framework, I begin every class with a discussion about study skills and academic goals, and my students make a list of their favorite study strategies, which they can add to throughout the quarter. I encourage my students to comment on their own reading process through paired “Think Alouds,” exercises in which students read aloud to a partner and insert commentary into the text. Most students find that summarizing content as they read improves their comprehension and prevents the common problem of reaching the end of a textbook chapter with no memory of what they just read. As someone who has never struggled much with reading, the Reading Apprenticeship framework has made me stop and think about how to teach the processes I use to comprehend difficult text, processes which are invisible to many students who think that reading is simply looking at words on a page.
In order for my students to willingly open up to others when they have a hard time comprehending something, our classroom must be a safe and welcoming place. I try to get to know all of my students individually and gain their trust by demonstrating that I am actively trying to help them succeed. I encourage shyer students to open up to their classmates and form meaningful relationships, often by forming strategic small groups for specific assignments. Group work also allows me to tailor formative assessments based on the educational backgrounds and specific interests of each group, and to assign roles that showcase each student’s unique strengths.
In addition, I try to incorporate the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) into my courses. Small things, such as using descriptive alt-text when linking to content in Canvas and nesting headings in a logical order, not only improve comprehension for vision impaired students, but make content easier to read for everyone. Following some student suggestions from my course evaluations a few years ago, I started recording videos during all my classes. Students who come from different linguistic backgrounds especially appreciate these Panopto videos, which can be paused or slowed down to catch all the content.
Over the past 3 years (and longer) I have grown to place more emphasis on students as investigators and creators of scientific knowledge, especially in the lab. My ideas about what should be emphasized and how students learn science have been heavily influenced by my teaching experience, but also by interactions with colleagues around the state and region. Washington State is lucky to have a large group of 2- and 4-year college biology educators who meet regularly to discuss scholarly work in biology education. This includes the Biology Education Research Group which has weekly meetings at the University of Washington, Northwest PULSE, ComGen, and the Northwest Biology Instructors organization. Their willingness to share findings and collaborate across institutions has greatly improved my teaching.